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Messengers in Shakespeare's Plays* Lloyd Davis It is estimated that Shakespeare uses messengers five times as often as other playwrights of the time, taking advantage of their practical and symbolic potential.1 Messengers are expedient figures for dramatic texts. They can explain backgrounds, set up situations and convey information about unstaged events and dialogue. Their reports provide pretexts for continuing or altering action and characterization. In addition to formal effects, messengers m a y tap into complex patterns of interpretation and spectacle, exemplifying the capacity of hit parts' to 'function as meaningful parts of a dramatic whole'.2 The conditions of exchange and reception build texture and significance. For example, Antony and Cleopatra's thirtyfive messenger episodes help stage its mix of sensuality and power by connecting R o m e and Egypt, marking changes in space and time, indicating prestige and power, revealing and developing character;3 1 M. Mahood, Bit Parts in Shakespeare's Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 52. 2 Mahood, Bit Parts, p. 21. 3 Marion Perret, 'Shakespeare's Use of Messengers in Antony and Cleopatra', Drama Survey, 5 (1966), p. 72. P A R E R G O N ns 15.2 (January 1998) 96 Lloyd Davis and the exchange of letters in Two Gentlemen of Verona 'offers a virtual Lacanian allegory' of deferred desire and subjectivity that complicates the play's notions of identity and love.4 Indeed, the role of messenger can be located at the heart of Shakespeare's dramatic discourse: 'reports of what cannot be directly seen or shown' concentrate the plays' mimetic and rhetorical processes and m a y constitute 'the master trope and illusion of drama itself'.5 Messengers can be used not only to stage action, character and meaning but to reflect on a m o d e of communication that can inform and mislead, arouse and subdue audiences. The foregoing description of various 'message effects' pays particular attention to textual qualities, especially formal and functional consequences in the plays. There is more to these effects, however, than dramatic usefulness and metadramatic awareness. Shakespeare's depictions of messengers arise from a history of communication and transport, institutions and practices which were starting to undergo marked change in the 1500s and 1600s. These alterations affected, and were in m a n y ways produced by, prevailing economic and political conditions. If 'the traffic of the past corresponded to the economy of the past',6 then the loosening of royal and aristocratic holds on land ownership, production and selling led to an enormous dispersal and increase in demand for transport and communication services. National and international dealings along with interpersonal relations were affected. Changes were at once profound and commonplace, intertwining with daily life and also challenging the temporal and spatial premises of traditional bonds. In expanding the boundaries and increasing the tempo of exchange, 4 Jonathan Goldberg, 'Shakespearian Characters: The Generation of Sil in Voice, Terminal, Echo: Postmodernism and English Renaissance Texts York: Methuen, 1986), p. 73. 5 Patricia Parker, 'Shakespeare and Rhetoric: "Dilation" and "Delation" in Othello', in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. by Geoffrey Har and Patricia Parker (New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 65. 6 Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, Vol. Wheels of Commerce, trans, by Sian Reynolds (London: Collins, 1985), p. Messengers in Shakespeare's Plays 97 developments in transport and communication contributed to what Anthony Giddens has termed the 'disembedding' of social systems, that is, 'the ''lifting out" of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite spans of timespace '.7 Shakespeare's depictions of messengers are a prime instance of widespread interest in changing cultural circumstances and intercourse in m a n y Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, especially the city comedies of authors such as Dekker, Middleton, Marston and Jonson, w h o 'sought to reconcile the social tensions inherent in the economic base of England's evolving society through an explication of the n e w forms of social transaction'.8 Messengers and, more broadly, early-modern communications comprise a significant literary focus in the study of Renaissance drama because they connect language with economic, political and personal affairs. These complex...


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